3 Truths about the Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch

One of the more fabled insect hatches on the great western rivers is the Mother’s Day caddis hatch.

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience it on both the Yellowstone and Madison Rivers in Montana. There have been some magical moments. At times, the water seemed to boil with rising trout, and they were eager to attack the elk hair caddis fly I was casting. Yet I’ve had some frustrating moments, too.

Here are three things you need to know about the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch if you’re hoping to fish it with success:

1. Mother’s Day will be too late.

Don’t circle Mother’s Day on your calendar and expect to have a banner day. Most years, you will be better off taking your mom to dinner because you’ll be a couple weeks too late.

The problem is not a lack of bugs.

I remember an evening in early May when our family was sitting outside on my parents’ lawn, about two hundred yards from the bank of the Yellowstone River. We had to go inside because the air was so thick with caddis flies that we could hardly open our mouths for fear of ingesting them. But there was no reason to grab my fly rod and head for the river. The spring runoff was in full force. The Yellowstone had turned into an angry torrent of chocolate milk.

Some years, the runoff begins before the caddis hatch in full force and the fishing is stellar. Honestly, the best you can usually hope for is a about a five- to seven-day window in late April. As fun as it is to fish the Mother’s Day caddis hatch, I would not recommend planning a trip to Montana in late April, unless you are prepared to fish the spring creeks. All it takes is a warm day or two to get the snow melting and the river churning.

2. You will have a hard time seeing your fly.

It’s a thrill to see so many caddis on the water and the trout going crazy. But it’s frustrating, too.

Your offering is just one of a smorgasbord of options. Even if a trout rises to your fly, how will you know it? It can be maddening to try to identify your fly as it floats float down a run where dozens of other caddis are fluttering on the surface.

One solution: If you tie your own flies, tie a strip of colorful fiber on the top of your elk hair caddis fly. Lay it on top of the elk hair. Personally, I like to use a strip of red Antron body wool. If you don’t tie flies, you might find a fly tyer who will do this for you — even to flies that have already been tied. I’ve even thought about applying some model paint to the top of the elk hair. I have no idea, though, how this experiment would work.

There is another option, and that’s the third thing you need to know.

3. You may have better success under the surface.

Fishing beneath the surface works before the hatch is going hard, and it’s effective even when the hatch is at its peak. Before the hatch starts in earnest, I like to use a beadhead red fox squirrel nymph and then add a beadhead caddis pupa as a dropper.

A few years ago, I picked up several 16-inch rainbows in the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley on beadhead fox squirrel nymphs about a week before the hatch kicked into gear. When the hatch is at its peak, I will fish with an elk hair caddis on the surface and then drop a LaFontaine’s Emergent Sparkle Pupa which will float in the film, just below the surface.

You’ll be surprised how many trout you will catch on the dropper.

It’s a small window every year when the caddis are on the water and the water conditions are right for fly fishing. Some years, the window doesn’t open at all. But when it does, you can have quite a day. You’ll have caddis crawling all over your clothes and your glasses. You might even coax some trout to take your imitation.

And then the fun begins.

Go-To Gear for All Kinds of Weather

The worst days for fly fishers turn out to be the best days for fly fishing. The moisture in the air — whether in the form of rain or snow — triggers the insect hatches that often trout into a feeding frenzy. A few weeks ago, I witnessed a stretch of river come to life with leaping trout during a brief rain shower. I saw nothing feeding on the surface and caught nothing until the rain seemed to coax bugs and trout from their lairs.

But how do you cope with the various kinds of weather you’re going to face on the river? Here is my list:


Rain jacket. A few years ago, I bought a lightweight Simms rain jacket. Typically, my budget doesn’t let me splurge for the highest-end stuff (although somehow I ended up with a Winston fly rod!). But it was a purchase I don’t regret. Despite the obvious protection from the rain, the jacket also provides warmth on cool spring mornings and cool fall evenings even when the weather is dry. The jacket is small and light enough that I can roll it up and keep it in my fly vest.

Waders. This seem obvious. But waders also provide their share of warmth in cool weather. When we’re fishing the Driftless in Wisconsin, Dave and I rarely wade in water above our calves. Yet in the spring, we’ll wear our chest waders. It’s not because we’re worried about falling in the little spring creeks we fish. It’s just that the waders provide some warmth.

In the summer, though, you may prepare to wet-wade. I still shake my head when I think about the guy Dave and I saw wearing waders on a little creek in the Driftless on a sunny, eighty degree day!

Wool or waterproof gloves. I’m a wimp when it comes to keeping my hands warm. It’s been that way since I started deer hunting at age 10. So I’ve found that either wool or waterproof gloves work best. The gloves which expose one’s finger tips just don’t work for me. They make about as much sense for me as a screen door on a submarine. But whatever kind of gloves work for you, you’ll be thankful you’ve stashed a pair in your fly vest in the spring and fall. Snow happens. And early mornings and late afternoons can get cool.

Gore-Tex or wool hat. For years, I’ve worn a Woolrich hunting cap because it keeps the moisture off of my head whether it’s raining or snowing. A cotton baseball cap just doesn’t cut it. Recently, I bought a Simms Gore-text hat that I love (whoops, so much for my claim about not buying high end gear!). It’s lightweight, and it’s terrific for keeping my head dry on drizzly days.

Neck gator. This is the newest “gadget” I’ve been enjoying. I thought this would drive me crazy, because I don’t like stuff around my neck. But besides providing warmth, it’s great for protection from the sun. Dave took the above photo of me using the neck gator for sun protection when it was over eighty degrees on the Madison River. Even though I look like a threat to homeland security, the neck gator really works. The fabric is light enough that I never started sweating.

Layers with micro fiber. I’ve become a bit of a micro fiber fanatic. My kids think I must have a deal with Under Armour. But I wear Nike’s Dri-FIT too. This stuff keeps my either warm or cool, depending on the need of the day. Most importantly, it doesn’t soak up moisture. Having several layers of shirts or pants allows for easy adjustments. Besides, it means that you don’t have to bring a bulky coat.

At the end of the day, the goal is not to look like a model in a Simms or Cabela’s catalog. It’s to stay warm or cool, and always dry. Yes, the right gear can make or break your day on the river. Believe me, even a Winston doesn’t cast well when your hand is numb with cold or your body is shivering because you’re soaked with rain water.